Bhutto widower proposed for Pakistan president
Sunday, 24 August 2008

In this handout photo released by Pakistan People's Party, ruling party leader Asif Ali Zardari, left, speaks during the party's central executive meeting in Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Aug. 22, 2008.AP, ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan's main ruling party on Friday proposed the widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan's next president, making Asif Ali Zardari the clear front-runner.

The move could hasten the collapse of a ruling coalition that has struggled to tackle the growing strength of Taliban militants. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings Thursday that left 67 people dead.

On Friday, Pakistan's election commission announced that federal and provincial lawmakers will elect U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf's successor in simultaneous votes on Sept. 6. Candidates must file their nomination papers on Aug. 26.

Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for the Pakistan People's Party, said the group's top decision-making body unanimously backed Zardari for president.

"If the major political party believes that he is the most talented person, then he is the most eligible person for this post," said Nabeel Gabol, another party leader.

"Now it depends on him whether he himself becomes (president) or nominates someone else," Gabol said.

Rehman said Zardari told the gathering that he would announce whether to accept the nomination within 24 hours.

Zardari has played down his ambitions in public. However, he has done nothing to prevent a growing band of backers from touting his name for the post. Analysts say he looks assured of victory if he runs.

Zardari leads a coalition that swept Musharraf's supporters aside in February parliamentary elections. Musharraf resigned Monday to avoid impeachment charges.

The alliance vowed to strip the presidency of the powers accumulated by Musharraf, including the right to dissolve parliament and appoint the chiefs of Pakistan's powerful military.

But it quickly became mired in wrangling over other issues, principally how to restore judges purged from the Supreme Court when Musharraf imposed emergency rule last year.

Zardari's nomination comes as a crisis over the reinstatement of judges fired by Musharraf was narrowly averted Friday.
The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the second largest in the ruling coalition, had threatened to quit the governing coalition without an agreement by Friday on the judges' reinstatement.

After talks with other coalition leaders, Sharif set Wednesday as a new deadline — the third since Musharraf's ouster — to restore the judges.

The tensions come as the country faces renewed resistance from militants.

On Friday, security forces killed 16 Taliban militants — including two suspected suicide bombers — after stopping a suspicious vehicle on a bridge near Hangu in the country's volatile northwest, the military said.

According to a military statement, the occupants were ordered out of the vehicle, but only one person emerged. Troops fired on the man as he approached, triggering explosives he was carrying. Gunfire was exchanged with the remaining suspects, but ended when the vehicle exploded.

It is believed that another suicide bomber in the vehicle caused the explosion.

Meanwhile, the death toll from Thursday's suicide bombings climbed to 67 people Friday with another 102 wounded, police said. The carnage could have been greater: Authorities arrested a man they believe would have been a third bomber not far from the scene, a local police official said.

The attack, one of the worst-ever in Pakistan, hit one of the country's most sensitive military installations.
A day later, Pakistan's civilian leaders met for talks on how to restore the judges ousted by Musharraf last year and who should succeed him as head of state.

Sharif on Friday accused Zardari of failing to respect an agreement to bring back the justices within 24 hours of Musharraf's resignation.

A leader of a powerful lawyers' movement that has mounted street protests in favor of the judges issued a veiled warning against any further backsliding.

"Many promises to the nation have not been honored," Tariq Mehmood said. "If somebody thinks that people will be satisfied after Musharraf's removal, let me tell you that people want the rule of law."

Sharif, a bitter foe of Musharraf, argues that a simple order from the prime minister is enough to restore the judges. But Zardari has consistently blocked that, arguing that it requires a constitutional amendment.

Musharraf, who was also army chief until November, imposed emergency rule and purged the Supreme Court to prevent it from disqualifying him from continuing as a civilian president.

Zardari, like Musharraf, accuses the judges of being too political.

Analysts suggest his hostility could also be due to concern that they could reopen long-standing corruption cases against him dating back to his wife's two spells as prime minister in the 1990s.

Sharif, meanwhile, may view the judges as likely allies if he follows through with threats to have Musharraf tried for treason — a charge punishable by death. Sharif has also been more reserved than Zardari about embracing Pakistan's unpopular role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Many Pakistanis say Musharraf's heavy-handed use of the army against militant strongholds in the northwest has only increased sympathy for the militants and emboldened them to strike back with scores of suicide bombings over the past year.

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